Marjorie Jackson was born on 13th September 1931 at Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, the daughter of fitter and turner William Jackson and his wife Mary (née Robinson). She was educated at Coffs Harbour and Cooerwull Public Schools and at the High School at Lithgow, where she spent most of her childhood.
She attracted attention in 1949 when she defeated the visiting Dutch Olympic champion Fanny Blankers-Koen over 100 yards. In January 1950 she equalled Blankers-Koen’s world record of 10.8 seconds for the 100 yards. Between 1950 and 1954 Jackson won every state and Australian title for the 100 and 220 yards. At the 1950 Commonwealth Games in Auckland, New Zealand, she won four gold medals (100 yards, 220 yards, and 2 relays). She equalled the world record of 11.5 seconds in winning the 100 metres at the Olympic Games in Helsinki in 1952 and won another gold medal for the 200 metres.
She was accompanied that day by Peter Nelson, an Australian cyclist whom she had met on the plane to Helsinki. He had never seen her run and she recalls that she ‘wanted to show off a bit to Peter’. Jackson set a new world record of 23.4 seconds in the semi-final of the 200 metres and went on to win the final by an astonishing five metres. She was expected to win another gold medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay after the Australian team set a world record (46.1 secs.) in their heat. However, the baton was dropped at the final exchange between Winsome Cripps and Jackson, and the Australian team was unplaced. A week after the Olympic Games, the Australian team defeated the Americans, who had won the Olympic relay gold medal, but the defeat and a new world record did little to ease the pain of the loss in Helsinki.
Marjorie Jackson was the first Australian woman to win an Olympic gold medal in athletics and she dominated women’s sprints in the early 1950s. In Helsinki, she and Shirley Strickland were the first Australian athletes to win Olympic gold medals since Edwin Flack in 1896. Jackson repeated her Commonwealth Games successes in Vancouver in 1954 but retired at the age of 22 to marry Peter Nelson (on 7th November 1953) and live in Adelaide. In her relatively short career of five years, she dominated her opposition, whether in Australia or overseas, and was dubbed ‘The Lithgow Flash’ by the national media. She captured ten individual world records and anchored three world-record relay teams. In 1952 she was A.B.C. Sportsman [sic] of the Year and was elected to the Helms Hall of Fame in the United States. The following year she was awarded an M.B.E.
Peter Nelson died of leukaemia in 1977 and since that date Jackson has raised over $3 million for research into the disease. This has resulted in a full-time researcher being appointed to the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Adelaide, as well as many other benefits.
In 1980 Jackson was president of the South Australian Olympic Council. In 1986 the International Amateur Athletics Federation declared her one of the sport’s ‘most outstanding athletes’ and in 1995 she was named ‘a legend of Australian sport’. She was awarded the A.O. in 1990 for services to sport and health. At the Sydney 2000 Olympics she featured in the opening ceremony, carrying the Olympic flag into the arena with other ‘Australian Sporting Legends’ and in the same year a statue of her was unveiled at Lithgow to commemorate her link with that city.
In 2001 she was appointed Governor of South Australia, a position she held until 2007. She continues to encourage the quest for excellence of young women who seek to emulate her feats in the Olympic arena and is outspoken about the excesses and disappointments of contemporary sport.
Atkinson, G., Australian and New Zealand Olympians: The stories of 100 great champions (Canterbury: Five Mile Press, 1984).
Daly, J.A., Feminae Ludens: Women’s competitive sport in South Australia 1936-1956 (Adelaide: Daly, 1994).
Daly, J.A., Ours were the hearts to dare: A history of women’s amateur athletics in South Australia 1930-1980 (Adelaide: Daly, 1982).
Vamplew, W., et al, The Oxford companion to Australian sport (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994).